Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rapidly expanded its footprint in Yemen since February 1, 2016, behind the frontlines of Yemen’s civil war. Produced by James Towey.

February 17, 2016

AQAP Expanding behind Yemen's Frontlines

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is well on its way to reconstituting the emirate it held in 2011 and 2012 almost unnoticed by the outside world. It has expanded across southern Yemen rapidly while the civil war’s frontlines remain effectively stalemated. It seized control of five cities in the past two weeks and gained control of two additional provincial capitals in the past two months. U.S. airstrikes have had no effect at all on this expansion and have not significantly degraded the group’s ability to target the United States. AQAP is becoming an ever-more serious threat to American national security, and no one is doing much about it.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has rapidly expanded its footprint in Yemen since February 1, 2016, behind the frontlines of Yemen’s civil war. Produced by James Towey.

None of the forces fighting on the ground are contesting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s expansion.[1] Airstrikes continue to target AQAP’s leadership, but the group draws on a depth of experience among veteran al Qaeda operatives and has proven to be resilient.

The group may well be reconstructing the quasi-state it ruled at the height of its power in 2011 and 2012—the Emirate of Waqar. That emirate stretched across two Yemeni governorates, Abyan and Shabwah, which AQAP attempted to govern.[2] Its capital cities of “Wilayat Abyan” and “Wilayat Shaqra” were Ja’ar, about 12 kilometers north of Zinjibar, and Azzan, respectively. It has regained control of both cities. The cities under AQAP’s control today, in fact, extend across four Yemeni provinces, and include the capital of Lahij, al Hawta, to the west and the capital of Hadramawt, al Mukalla, to the east. AQAP has controlled al Mukalla since April 2, 2015, and seized control of al Hawta on January 25, 2016.

AQAP’s February gains secure its access to the key route linking its al Mukalla stronghold to Ja’ar. Its rapid expansion may mark the start of an effort to consolidate control over a contiguous area in south Yemen that it could really govern. [See Table I.] AQAP will most likely continue this effort by aiming to recapture Lawder and Mudia, which control a juncture in Abyan that provides access to al Bayda. Anti-al Houthi forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition currently control the towns, but there are reports that AQAP is operating in the area.[3]

Table 1. Timeline of AQAP Control of Cities
April 2, 2015
AQAP’s Ansar al Sharia attacked government and security facilities in al Mukalla, Hadramawt. They also freed over 270 inmates, including Khalid al Batarfi, the former emir of Wilayat Abyan. AQAP operates in al Mukalla as “the Sons of Hadramawt.”
May 6, 2015
Ansar al Sharia militants seized al Shihr, Hadramawt. Ansar al Sharia was operating in the area since April 16, when it seized the oil terminal.
December 2, 2015
Ansar al Sharia militants overwhelmed local forces and seized Ja’ar and Zinjibar, Abyan. AQAP operates in the cities as “the Sons of Abyan.”
January 25, 2016
Militants, most likely AQAP, seized control of government buildings in al Hawta, Lahij.
February 1, 2016
AQAP militants seized control of Azzan, Shabwah, after local tribal militias withdrew from the city.
February 3, 2016
AQAP militants took control of Habban, Shabwah.
February 4, 2016
AQAP militants took control of al Mahfad, Abyan.
February 6, 2016
AQAP militants seized Shaqra and Ahwar, Abyan.
Source: Author.

Local resistance to AQAP is minimal at best. Local tribes and militias have little incentive to fight AQAP as it advances, especially given the ongoing violence in the rest of the country. AQAP has been actively targeting the leadership of the popular resistance committees that coordinated with the Yemeni military against the group in 2012 and that denied it much of the territory it has now regained.[4] Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s insurgent force, placed a bounty on the head of Sheikh Abdul Latif al Sayyed and militants raided his home in Zinjibar in early December 2015, for example.[5] He had been one of the key powerbrokers in 2012 that led the fight against AQAP. Al Sayyed fled to Aden in early January.[6]

The Saudi-led coalition’s primary efforts have aimed at combatting the al Houthi-Saleh forces and re-establishing Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government in Aden. The coalition spokesman announced a long-term objective of combating AQAP on February 8, but underscored that the coalition was focused on restoring stability and governance to Yemen and that the counter-AQAP fight was a Yemeni one.[7] Coalition actions bear out this prioritization: its recent operations have focused on Yemen’s northern Red Sea coast in order to isolate the al Houthi-Saleh coalition inland—an effort that does nothing to help the fight against AQAP. The coalition is unlikely to open a new front against AQAP without significant support and leadership from the United States.

American actions to counter AQAP will not halt AQAP’s advance, let alone roll back its gains. U.S. officials have indicated that American actions will remain limited to targeted airstrikes until there is a legitimate, sovereign government with which to partner against the group. U.S. airstrikes have killed a handful of senior AQAP leaders since the collapse of Yemen’s central government in January 2015.[8] Most recently, an airstrike killed a top military commander, Jalal Bal’idi al Marqishi on February 4, 2016.[9] Marqishi, also known as Abu Hamza al Zinjibari, was the Ansar al Sharia leader who seized Zinjibar in 2011.[10] Yet AQAP’s ground advance has continued unabated. The group has even revealed the presence of additional al Qaeda veterans within its leadership, including naming a founder of the group, Ibrahim Abu Salih, and a former Guantanamo detainee, Ibrahim al Qosi.[11]

AQAP leadership has most likely decided not to operationalize attacks against the U.S. at this time so that American policymakers’ attention remains fixated on the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri instructed his affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, to pursue this approach.[12] The myopic American focus on defeating ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya, has created space for AQAP and other al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al Nusra to expand and consolidate their positions on the ground. The absence of an AQAP attack does not mean that the group cannot conduct attacks, nor that it has abandoned the idea of attacking the U.S. It means only that al Qaeda’s leaders are smart enough to take advantage of American distraction to prepare themselves for future struggles.

Destroying AQAP’s threat node—its attack cell and the direct organizational infrastructure supporting that cell—will not be sufficient to secure American national security interests, even if the extremely limited American direct-action campaign in Yemen could hope to do so. Attempting to separate the threat node from the base and only targeting those components that are oriented on external attacks ensures that the group will continue to be able to generate future threats, the argument for which is made at length in Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe.[13] AQAP has and will continue to be able to generate threat nodes as long as its organizational base is intact and it has sanctuary in Yemen.

American policy-makers’ single-minded focus on the threat node ignores the step-change in capabilities that AQAP made this year. AQAP is thriving on governance gaps created by the civil war, and also by the neglect of local administrations by both the al Houthi-Saleh and Hadi governments.[14] It has governed al Mukalla, Yemen’s third-largest port city, by proxy since April 2015.[15] It will probably replicate this system of governance, which establishes a level of deniability over the linkages to the group, in order to consolidate control over newly seized cities. AQAP has also worked along pragmatic lines, providing weapons, supplies, and training to Sunni tribal militia forces in the fight against the al Houthi-Saleh coalition, to strengthen relations with local populations, which is a source of the groups’ strength.[16] It is replicating to some extent the approach Jabhat al Nusra has taken in Syria, which has been enormously successful.[17] AQAP’s growing presence across southern Yemen will become more difficult to reverse the longer the group controls populated centers.

Separating AQAP and its proxies from local governance to eliminate AQAP’s support base grows more challenging over time, increasing the requirements to secure U.S. national security interests. The Saudi-led coalition does not include combatting AQAP as one of its immediate objectives, and the American strategy still rests on—and waits for—a partnered Yemeni government to lead the ground fight. The end to Yemen’s civil war—a war fought along multiple fault lines in the country—is nowhere in sight. AQAP, meanwhile, will strengthen as it establishes itself in an expansive and contiguous block of territory, the building block for a future emirate.

AQAP, like all al Qaeda groups, is prosecuting a long-term strategy to destroy the West. We must not be lulled into complacency as AQAP focuses on its local presence. Instead, AQAP’s expansion over the past two weeks should be seen as a call-to-action for the U.S. to drive efforts to fill the governance and security gaps in Yemen that AQAP has exploited and to facilitate meaningful political dialogue on multiple levels—especially at the regional and local level—to de-escalate the war. AQAP’s future threat to the U.S. is growing. We must recognize this now.


[1] Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 10, 2015,
[2] For more, see Katherine Zimmerman, “Insurgency in Yemen: The New Challenge to American Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 19, 2012,
[3] Militants, believed to be AQAP, attacked the governor’s house in Lawder on February 5, possibly in retaliation for the airstrike that killed Ansar al Sharia leader Jalal al Bal'idi al Marqishi on February 4. “Targeting of the Abyan governor’s home by unknown gunmen,”, February 5, 2016, [Arabic].
[4] For detailed research on the Abyani tribes and the popular resistance committees, see Sasha Gordon, “Abyani Tribes and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen,” AEI’s Critical Threat Project, July 25, 2012,
[5] Emily Estelle, “2015 Yemen Crisis Situation Report: December 4,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, December 4, 2015,
[6] “Armed clashes between Al Qaeda and the resistance in west of Zinjibar,” Aden al Ghad, January 6, 2016, [Arabic].
[7] On-the-record briefing from Brigadier General Ahmed al Asiri via video conference at the Center for New American Security, February 8, 2016.
[8] Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, September 10, 2015,, p. 21.
[9] “Al Qaeda Mourns Death of Top Commander in Yemen,” Reuters, February 6, 2016,
[10] Joshua Koontz, “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Mid-Level Leadership,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, June 3, 2015,, slides 15-16.
[11] Thomas Joscelyn, “An al Qaeda Commander Comes out from the Shadows,” Long War Journal, December 16, 2015,
[12] Jabhat al Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al Joulani relayed guidance from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri to refrain from attacking the U.S. and the West from its base so as not to disturb the current fight during a May 2015 interview with al Jazeera. The video and transcript are available in Arabic:
[13] Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, and Katherine Zimmerman, “Al Qaeda and ISIS: Existential Threats to the U.S. and Europe,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War, January 21, 2016,
[14] For a discussion of how the government’s failure to establish security and governance have facilitated the growth of AQAP and ISIS, see Nadwa al Dawsari, “Governance is the Key to Defeating IS: Lessons Learned from Counterterrorism in Yemen,” Lawfare Blog, February 14, 2016,
[15] AQAP’s proxies in al Mukalla include the “Sons of Hadramawt,” an armed group providing security in the city and enforcing shari’a court verdicts, and the Hadhrami Domestic Council, which administers the city.
[16] Katherine Zimmerman, “AQAP: A Resurgent Threat,” CTC Sentinel, September 11, 2015,; and Katherine Zimmerman, “A New Model for Defeating al Qaeda in Yemen.”
[17] See AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War’s report series, U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, especially Jennifer Cafarella, Harleen Gambhir, and Katherine Zimmerman, “Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS: Sources of Strength,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project and the Institute for the Study of War, February 11, 2016,
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